The Rev. Geno Sylva walked away from the wreckage staring straight ahead. He wore a red hard hat and the white collar of a Roman Catholic priest. A purple stole hung around his neck.
He came hoping to comfort the injured. He expected to perform the last rites.
He did neither.
Instead, he said, ``I anointed pieces of people's bodies.''
Then he strode off from the World Trade Center disaster site, passing Stuyvesant High School, where dozens and dozens of doctors and nurses waited Wednesday to perform triage on wounded who never came. A doctor in green surgical scrubs raised his arms and yawned as the grim-faced young priest walked by.
Lt. Danny Hopkins headed the other way, into the dust and twisted steel. He led four firefighters, all from Engine Co. 16 on 29th Street. It was their day off, but six men from their firehouse were missing.
``We're trying to sneak in,'' he said.
He sounded hopeful. A police officer was found alive after daybreak, he said.
``It gives you a little hope,'' he said.
Then, at midday, Engine Co. 324 from Queens found a woman alive.
``She seemed alert,'' Lt. Brian Pender said. ``We passed her up [from the rubble] and she was talking a little.''
``That's the kind of thing that makes everything worthwhile,'' firefighter Dan Drolet said. ``I don't know how many we are going to find, but it gives you a jolt of adrenaline to find someone alive.''
Lt. John Cronley spent hours on his hands and knees searching for survivors beneath the rubble, wriggling into the small voids and crevices left when 110 stories of steel, glass and concrete collapsed 24 hours earlier onto lower Manhattan.
He found only the dead. None were his missing friends.
Cronley, a firefighter for 23 years, said that the faint promise of a miracle kept him clawing in the dark, dust-choked spaces beneath the city, dodging jagged metal reinforcement bars. Even after finding only bodies, or pieces of bodies, he hoped there were places ``where a man might be alive.''
Every firefighter marching into the disaster clung to such thoughts.
An estimated 300 firefighters disappeared when the twin towers came down in a terrorist attack Tuesday, the largest single loss of life in the storied history of the Fire Department of New York. Six of the missing were assigned to Cronley's firehouse.
``Every company down here lost people, two guys, five guys, 10 guys,'' said Lt. Vincent Bonura, an officer with Ladder Co. 8, a unit based a short walk from the disaster scene. ``Every guy I know who's missing had four kids, five kids. One guy had five boys.''
His voice broke. For a moment, all he could do was shake his head from side to side. In the previous 24 hours, he had cheated death and seen two of his department's highest-ranking officers die before his eyes. Scores of his friends were missing.
Ladder Co. 8 had been the first truck to the World Trade Center after the plane struck the skyscraper. Its firefighters climbed 34 floors, evacuating office workers. Then a second plane hit the second tower. The firefighters were ordered out.
Bonura was on the street when Tower 2 collapsed.
``I ran inside a garage on West Street. One of my guys jumped under a firetruck. When he opened his eyes, the truck was gone. He was looking at sky,'' Bonura said. ``He hasn't stopped crying since. I think he's shell-shocked.''
Before he took cover, Bonura had been near Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci and First Deputy Fire Commissioner William M. Feehan. Both men were killed, as was the Rev. Mychal Judge, one of the department's Roman Catholic chaplains.
``Some made it. Some didn't,'' Bonura said. ``Who knows why?''
The brush with death was not what haunted Bonura the most. It was the bodies that fell from the sky, hitting the sidewalk near him. Others crashed through an adjoining glass atrium roof. He looked up to see office workers, leaping to their deaths rather than face the flames raging in Tower One. He ran.
``I seen their faces coming down,'' Bonura said.
His voice grew hoarse as he told the story. Then he began to sob.
``I'll never forget that,'' he said. ``Never.''
Bonura then resumed his march of retreat, away from the rubble and its swirling fine, gray dust, toward his firehouse. He needed to get away.
``I'm going to go home and hug my daughter,'' he said. ``She's 8 months old.''
New York City firefighters weren't alone in their grueling search.
Agonizing over what they'd seen on television, 15 West Haven firefighters drove into Manhattan on Tuesday night and were soon put to work pulling concrete and steel from the collapse zone of Tower 2.
``The magnitude of the disaster isn't appreciated from watching TV -- it just goes on for block after block after block,'' said West Haven Capt. Scott Schwartz.
``For a while, we were working near firefighters from Engine 10,'' Scott said. ``Half of that company was wiped out, and their guys were digging fast and furious. When we had to slow down for heavy equipment to come in, that's when firefighters broke down or wept -- the rest of the time, there was a job to do.''
Peter Hart is a battalion chief who spent the morning fighting a fire at 90 West St.
``Since I've been on the job, I've been to 70 funerals,'' said Hart, a firefighter for 23 years. ``Guys will persevere today. It'll take awhile for all this to sink in.''
As for Hart, he will mourn the dead and give thanks for some remarkable escapes.
His younger brother, firefighter James Hart, was in Tower Two as it started to collapse on Tuesday. Three firefighters with Hart were killed, but his brother escaped. He hasn't seen him, but a call home to his wife determined that James had made it out.
The phone call was a comfort. He knows he will have a 71st funeral to attend in coming days -- and then some. But it will not be for the younger brother who followed him on the job. On Wednesday, a day with a few miracles and many disappointments, that was enough.
Courant Staff Writers Denis Horgan and Don Stacom contributed to this report.